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Alexander Neef commissioned a report on diversity as one of his first acts of leadership at the Paris Opera.JAMES HILL/The New York Times News Service

The Canadian Opera Company’s outgoing general director Alexander Neef is championing major moves to increase diversity and inclusion in his new job at the Opéra national de Paris, aka the Paris Opera, where he became artistic director in September.

As a result, Neef is finding himself accused of importing North American “cancel culture” to France by some commentators – and at the centre of a national debate.

On Monday, the Paris Opera – an opera, orchestra and ballet company that traces its origins back to the court of Louis XIV – released a major report on diversity within its ranks penned by Pap Ndiaye, a French historian, and Constance Rivière, secretary general of France’s Defender of Rights government agency.

Its recommendations include altering recruitment practices and admission guidelines at the schools it runs, as well as inviting a greater diversity of choreographers and directors to work with the company.

In regards to the repertoire, the report calls for the elimination of blackface, brownface and yellowface in opera and dance, and, likewise, an end to the practice of lightening of dancers’ skin in classical ballet.

Neef commissioned this report as one of his first acts of leadership at the Paris Opera in response to an open letter and petition. He embraced its conclusions yesterday, but told Agence France-Presse, “This report is not the conclusion of a process, but the start. It is something that will live with us for years.”

None of this seems particularly controversial from this side of the ocean – we’ve seen similar and even larger steps taken to combat systemic racism at performing arts organizations across Canada and the United States since a new wave of the Black Lives Matter movement took to the streets in reaction to the police killing of George Floyd in May.

In France, however, Neef has been under attack from the right and the far-right ever since he was quoted in M, a magazine associated with the newspaper Le Monde, in December on the subject of the impending report saying, “Certain works will no doubt disappear from the repertoire.”

In response to that comment, the French far-right leader Marine Le Pen railed against “antiracism gone mad” on Twitter, while Le Monde journalist Michael Guerrin wondered whether Neef was importing “cancel culture” from Canada, noting the outgoing COC head has been “immersed in North American culture for more than a decade.” (Both made their comments in French.)

(I guess right-wing Québécois commentator Mathieu Bock-Côté, who also railed about “the racial obsession” reaching opera in a column about Neef’s comments in the French-language newspaper Le Figaro, does not count as part of North American culture?)

I find this French controversy interesting largely for what it reveals about how the cultural climate in Canada and the United States is viewed by some overseas. Guerrin, in his column, describes France as “slowly beginning to go down the American road, which translates into galloping self-censorship by artists and programmers to pre-empt and avoid trouble and the promotion of unchallenging feel-good pieces.”

Now that the Paris Opera report is out and its sensible recommendations are being digested, the reaction in the French press has so far been more muted. “We’re not here promoting a climate of censorship, or dictatorial actions from the leadership,” Neef told The New York Times. “The whole point of this initiative is we want to put on opera and ballet by 21st-century artists for 21st-century audiences.”

Back at the end of 2019, Canadian choreographer and internationally recognized genius Crystal Pite created her second full-length dance work for Paris Opera Ballet.

Body and Soul, as the piece was called, received mixed reviews from the Financial Times (”unforgettable to puzzling”) and The New York Times (”What?”), but it played to 20 sold-out performances at the Palais Garnier.

Canadians will get to find out for themselves what they think of this work next week thanks to Digidance, an initiative of DanceHouse (Vancouver), Harbourfront Centre (Toronto), the National Arts Centre (Ottawa), and Danse Danse (Montreal). The four dance presenters have come together to host the international digital premiere of Body and Soul online from Feb. 17 to 23. (Tickets are $15 plus tax).

Before then, another major online ballet event takes place on Feb. 11 courtesy of the National Ballet of Canada: the world premiere of its digital presentation of The Dreamers Ever Leave You.

Choreographic associate Robert Binet first created this piece as an immersive performance in the Art Gallery of Ontario in 2016, in response to the work of Group of Seven painter Lawren Harris.

Globe dance critic Martha Schabas called it “a thrilling and affirming victory for the art form” in her review then, but was less impressed when it was presented on a proscenium stage a couple of years later.

For its digital version, excerpts were filmed from all angles during an “intimate engagement” at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre last fall by Canadian director Ben Shirinian. It is free to watch through the National Ballet website starting Thursday.

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